Through Choice Neighborhoods, the Housing Authority of the City and County of Denver (DHA) created a unique fresh foods market in a former food desert. Decatur Fresh Market opened in November 2021 on the ground floor of DHA’s first housing phase. In addition to becoming the community’s main grocery shopping venue, it has transformed into a bustling hub of activity for residents, youth, and drop-ins looking for cup of coffee or that hard-to-find, international food item.
With strategic planning and decision making, the DHA Team has not only established access to fresh foods, but it has also honored residents’ ethnic diversity by stocking culturally relevant foods and created new job opportunities for residents.
Responding to a Need
Denver’s Sun Valley Choice Neighborhood, home to some of the City’s most vulnerable residents, is a multi-ethnic community rich in culture and diversity, where over 28 languages are spoken, and 33 different cultural backgrounds are represented. In 2013, when the Housing Authority of the City and County of Denver (DHA) was first awarded its Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant, the Sun Valley neighborhood was a food desert, with the closest grocery store over 2 miles away. Residents were forced to turn to the local 7-Eleven minimart, where options were limited and fresh food was scarce, and had to travel two to three bus routes for culturally relevant food options. In addition to impacting basic health and nutrition, food scarcity and lack of variety limited the residents’ ability to share their cultures and connect with their neighbors through the simple pleasures of food.
As part of the larger Choice Neighborhoods FY13 Planning Grant visioning process, DHA and its partners administered several surveys on food needs within the community. They heard loud and clear the need for increased food access and employment opportunities. The Denver Team listened to its residents, creating a vision within its Planning Grant that evolved into a formal Critical Community Improvement (CCI) strategy for its $30 million FY16 Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant. Their strategy included three interconnected food initiatives – Decatur Fresh Market, the neighborhood’s own fresh food market; the community’s Grow Garden, a partnership with Denver’s botanic gardens; and a soon to be launched Food Business Incubator – to address food insecurity and bring economic opportunity and mobility into the community.
Strategic Launch of the Decatur Fresh Market
Originally DHA published a Request for Proposal (RFP) for operators to apply and broadcasted the RFP throughout the metropolitan area. However, several proposals came in that didn’t appear to meet the needs of the community and were not focused on residents. DHA already had prior experience overseeing operations for a food service enterprise and running job training programs through the Youth Employment Academy (YEA).
YEA oversees the Osage Café, located within a separate redevelopment site. While YEA is a standalone nonprofit whose board members are independent, DHA maintains a management agreement with YEA and provides staffing. Given their proven track record at the Osage Cafe, DHA decided the best option was to operate Decatur Fresh through YEA. They envisioned Decatur Fresh Market functioning as a community space, social enterprise, and training program. So, in 2020 DHA pivoted, and decided to have their nonprofit affiliate, YEA launch the market. This strategic partnership would also open multiple avenues for funding outside of store sales, including grants, fundraising, and donations. These funds would help support overhead and operations costs, enabling them to keep food costs low for the community.
DHA’s Opening and Keys to Operational Success
In conjunction with the opening of the first phase of revitalized mixed-income housing in Sun Valley, Decatur Fresh Market opened an 1,800-square-foot storefront. DHA purposefully chose this timing to make an impact on the community and demonstrate their deep commitment to immediately addressing the community’s critical food insecurity needs. DHA attributes the Market’s current success to several key factors:1) hiring the right staff, 2) participating in the SNAP/EBT Double Up Food Bucks food program, 3) strategically sourcing fresh produce and 4) remaining responsive to community needs.
Decatur Fresh Market was strategic in its hiring. The Market employs a rotating staff of six, all of whom except the manager, are Sun Valley residents who promote the store throughout the community. Their manager, a former DHA employee—who brings over 20 years’ experience in supermarket retail—has provided invaluable knowledge in ordering, stocking, and strategically locating goods throughout the market.
DHA participates in the SNAP/EBT Double Up Food Bucks fresh food program, through which shoppers using SNAP, or food stamps, receive a dollar-for-dollar match on the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables. This expanding program, establish in 2009 by Fair Food Network and currently offered in dozens of states, is critical to a neighborhood highly reliant on food stamps.
Decatur Fresh Market hosts a free lunch and snack program for the local elementary children in conjunction with Healthy Food and Denver’s Kid/DHA partnership.
In 2022, DHA sourced more than 5,000 pounds of fresh produce directly from DHA’s own Grow Garden, or though purchasing produce wholesale from other local markets. They also launched a farmers’ market just outside the store to allow for constantly accessible and rotating fresh produce.
The Market’s approach to tailoring itself to meet community needs has also contributed to their success. Staff piloted certain products and shifted inventory based on consumer preferences and shopping patterns. In addition to fresh food and other household products, Decatur Fresh Market carries international, culturally relevant food and spices and has set aside a space for resident-made merchandise for sale. They even sell a low-priced move-in care package with items like a mop, broom, trash bin, and towels for recent arrivals to the neighborhood.
Providing Economic Opportunity and Mobility
Just as important as addressing food access and insecurity, Decatur Fresh Market functions as a workforce development and education center for the neighborhood. In addition to hiring Sun Valley residents for all its front-line staff, Decatur Fresh Market offers youth internship opportunities through YEA’s Customer Service and Retail Management Program.
The market also offers opportunities for resident youth entrepreneurs through their Arts and Creative Industries to make and sell merchandise. Lastly, Decatur Fresh Market partners with Bold Beans, another local Denver social enterprise, to offer barista training to young women. Decatur Fresh Market fulfills the goals articulated by residents throughout the Planning Grant process by offering fresh food and integrating job training and employment opportunities throughout its business model.
Bringing High Hopes for the Future
Decatur Fresh Market’s success has set the stage for the third CCI food initiative, the Food Business Incubator, scheduled to be launched in late 2024. The Incubator will consist of a commissary kitchen space and five kiosks within a food hall, where entrepreneurs can rent a space for $50 per month for up to 2 years to launch a food business. Entrepreneurs will be provided culinary and business management support services, with the goal of eventually graduating to full-fledged businesses like food trucks, catering businesses, or formal restaurants. In addition to promoting economic opportunity for local entrepreneurs, each kiosk is projected to create three to five jobs, plus additional food service jobs throughout the commissary kitchen space.
Denver’s Successful Food Initiatives Bring It All Together
DHA’s intentional use of CCI funds for their fresh food initiatives have proven to be a solid example of how to tie together Choice Neighborhoods’ objectives related to people, housing, and neighborhood. DHA’s Decatur Fresh Market provides access to fresh foods and specialty items, offers new employment opportunities, and creates a brand-new community amenity that will serve original residents and attract new residents to the neighborhood. Further, by bringing culturally relevant food directly to the community, Decatur Fresh Market has facilitated a natural pathway for sharing cultures, building community, and breaking down barriers within the community.